The Premier League landed a comparatively small deal in early October that points to some much more substantial media trends for elite sport.
According to multiple outlets, English football’s top flight has signed a licensing partnership with the makers of the Apple TV+ comedy series Ted Lasso. The partnership would allow producers to use Premier League marks including logos, club kits and the trophy, as well as archival footage, in future episodes. It comes, the Athletic notes, after senior executives at the league warmed to the show’s charms, having initially been uncertain about its approach.
The arrangement is an interesting one. The £500,000 fee understood to have been paid to the Premier League is modest compared to those involved with major broadcast and sponsorship rights agreements, but the cultural upside could be significant.
Ted Lasso has been a breakout commercial success for Apple, the most popular of the original programmes on its over-the-top (OTT) subscription entertainment platform to date. It has also been a critical darling and was a big winner at September’s Emmy Awards for US television, winning for outstanding comedy series. Jason Sudeikis was recognised for his performance as the titular hero while Hannah Waddingham and Brett Goldstein also won for their work in supporting roles.
Nevertheless, viewers of the show may think it unlikely that the freshly official detailing is a move towards sombre realism. From its opening premise, Ted Lasso places its audience in what is very much an imagined universe. An American coach of second-tier college gridiron is hired by the owner of the fictional AFC Richmond; she is hoping his arrival will tank the fortunes of the west London club, which she acquired as part of a bitter divorce from her football-obsessed billionaire husband.
Much to her surprise, Lasso begins to win round everyone at the team, including her. He even starts to improve performances on the field – not by displaying some undiscovered tactical acumen, but through the constant application of empathy and, above all, curiosity. Ted Lasso is a show about community and open-mindedness and, in that respect, serves as a different kind of advertisement for the world of football – one that the Premier League is now keen on being associated with.
The tie-up further confirms the range of points of contact between sport and potential new fans in the digital media ecosystem. Ironically, the character of Ted Lasso began life in 2013 as a much broader ‘fish out of water’ figure in promotions for NBC’s US TV coverage of the Premier League, when Sudeikis was cast as an NFL coach taking the reins at Tottenham Hotspur. Yet just as Lasso assumes a more human depth in the full series, which was developed by Scrubs’ Bill Lawrence, it is hoped that this latest venture can ensure a more meaningful connection.
The Premier League is now in the market for the renewal of its broadcast rights contracts in the US – where NBC’s deal is set to expire at the end of the season – and is hoping that healthy competition will deliver a sizeable uplift on its current £150 million a year. The popularity of English football is much greater now among American sports fans than it was a decade ago, in part because of NBC’s influence, but initiatives like a presence in Ted Lasso will filter into areas where more casual audience reside – to the benefit of Premier League clubs, broadcasters and brand partners.
In some respects, this is following a pattern set by other sports rights holders in the documentary space. Within the Premier League, Arsenal have joined bitter north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur, as well as Manchester City, in opening their doors to filmmakers from Amazon’s All or Nothing series.
Then there is the most successful example in recent years of a sport using original programming to reach outside its traditional community. The Netflix series Drive to Survive has introduced Formula One to millions of viewers around the world, connecting them with real characters on and off the track and giving them a reason to care about motor racing minutiae they might not have been given time to understand in a live broadcast.
Ratings on American network ESPN had risen by as much as 50 per cent in the middle of the season, and many industry eyes will be watching the performance of October’s United States Grand Prix very carefully. In September, Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings was even moved to suggest that the global streaming leader “would think about it” once the live rights to the championship become available. That would be an unprecedented move for a company with over 214 million subscribers.
The potential of sport and entertainment crossovers is clear and even where the concepts are not new, they are evolving. This summer saw the release of rebooted version of Space Jam, the 1996 movie starring basketball icon Michael Jordan and the animated cast of the Looney Tunes. The 2021 edition features the LA Lakers’ LeBron James and, while the film underperformed critically and at the box office, there is the potential for a long tail of content involving some powerful intellectual property.
As the volume of entertainment outlets continues to expand, so too will the regularity of exercises like these. Connecting to people through the things they love and enjoy will always be a compelling proposition.
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